Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado review – powerful debut collection
Horror, science fiction and fairytale merge in these short stories from a writer of rare daring
Thu 18 Jan 2018
Thu 18 Jan 2018
ow much to get that extra stitch?” the narrator’s husband asks in the labour room as his wife is sewn up after a difficult birth. “You offer that, right?” “The husband stitch” – the term for an extra stitch to tighten the vaginal opening when repairing an episiotomy – is considered a dark joke from the battlefield of birth, but has been attested to as part of the violence visited on women’s bodies during labour. It’s also the title of the standout story in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, a finalist in last year’s US National Book awards: a tense, seductive fairytale about rumour and silence, sex and power, autonomy and being ignored.
The narrator begins as a bold girl in the tradition of Angela Carter: “This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them ... It is not normal that a girl teaches her boy, but I am only showing him what I want, what plays on the inside of my eyelids as I fall asleep.” She takes this young man as her husband, offering him her whole self – all except the mystery of what lies beneath the green ribbon tied in a bow around her throat. “Why do you want to hide it from me?” he asks. “I’m not hiding it,” she replies. “It just isn’t yours.” The ribbon becomes a locus for desire, aggression, control; their child had accepted it as part of his mother, but when he sees the father’s angry attempts to pull at the ends must also be warned away. “Something is lost between us, and I never find it again.” There is only one possible ending: just as Chekhov’s gun must be fired, this ribbon must eventually be untied.
You may recognise the setup from that hoary old horror story “The Green Ribbon” (inexplicably retold for first graders in the US by Alvin Schwartz in In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, thereby traumatising a generation). Machado folds many folk tales into “The Husband Stitch”, from the modern classic about the hook-handed murderer disturbing teenagers who are making out in a parked car to stories of a girl who is dared to go to a graveyard after dark and an old woman who must find a liver to cook for her husband.
Machado’s skill here is to bring out what these communal stories share, exploring their deep roots in women’s experience over centuries and the way they run together “like raindrops in a pond”. At the same time she challenges our individual readings: “That may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with. But I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.” She also gives stage directions, busting the story out from the page: to recreate the sound of an episiotomy, “give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.”
None of the other seven stories is as achieved as this one, but there’s a ragged glory to their formal experimentation and erotic fearlessness, and the gusto with which they reinvent horror, SF and fairytale tropes. Sex and death are the dominant themes, with two stories charting passion against the backdrop of apocalypse.
“Inventory” lists a woman’s erotic experiences, from the first inklings of desire in childhood, through memories of lovers both male and female, as a virus depopulates the world and any chance of physical connection dwindles. In “Real Women Have Bodies”, a riff on fashion and the constraints of body image, two young women fall in love as a mystery epidemic causes women literally to fade away. “I don’t trust anything that can be incorporeal and isn’t dead,” says one man, recasting the old misogynist joke about menstruation.
“Eight Bites” is a neat tale about self-hatred and bariatric surgery, with the fairytale promise of transformation: “It will hurt. It won’t be easy. But when it’s over, you’re going to be the happiest woman alive.” “Especially Heinous”, meanwhile, is a baggy monster: subtitled “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU”, this bizarre phantasmagoria of the US TV show is written in the form of surreal episode synopses. Poking fun at cop show cliche (“‘I hate this goddamned city,’ Benson says to Stabler, dabbing her eyes with a deli napkin”) while interrogating the way sexual violence is served up as primetime viewing, it also satirises the tendency of long-running narratives to become increasingly baroque, adding in ghosts, demons, doppelgangers and the conviction that “New York is riding on the back of a giant monster”.
Machado’s manipulation of literary registers can lead to odd and jarring effects, as in the deeply uncomfortable “The Resident”, which uses the fusty language of the Victorian ghost story for a contemporary tale about an artists’ colony that teems with every horror cliche imaginable. We encounter a spooky old hotel, terrible weather, buried memories about the nascent sexuality of pubescent girls, tears “the temperature of blood” and some truly disgusting psychosomatic pustules. Towards the end the mannered veneer cracks open to expose something quietly extraordinary. Like many of these pieces, it falls somewhere between exercise and inspiration, but it signals a writer of rare daring.
• Her Body & Other Parties is published by Serpent’s Tail.